Andrew Bennett: I'd like to get your thoughts on where we've come in this year since the passage of the secular law and how you see things having developed since its passage.
Beryl Wajsman: The demonstrations have died down, and there were a lot of them at the beginning. There have been problems with hiring, particularly in education, but I don't think a lot of the fears that this would grow to be some kind of an anti-religious movement have panned out. It was never the burning question of Quebec society, but it has been a theme since the Quiet Revolution, a revolt against authority, all authority. And since the Church was so tied into the government, particularly during the Duplessis years, there was a reaction against it.
This law affects how we make our laws in the legislature, where we interpret them in the courts, where we enforce them in the security apparatus and where we form the intellectual character in public schools. It is unlike (former Premier Pauline) Marois’ Charter of Values, which was intended to incite. She wanted 30,000 ethnics marching (in the streets.) She wanted to create that division, and her law affected everybody. This law doesn't do that. I think people are coming around to understanding it.
AB: Maxime, you oppose the law. Where has this past year has brought us?
Maxime Huot Couture: I do agree with Beryl that the political turmoil is over. It's behind us. It may be a bit early to judge the effects of the law. But, as was planned by the government of the CAQ (Coaliton Avenir Québec), I think there's not so much effect actually. We're speaking of a few individuals directly affected, in the last year maybe 50 to 80. Politically speaking, this is nothing.
I think what’s not a good thing is it becoming mixed with the racism issue that many countries are addressing. Those are two different questions. It will not be useful for us to mix secularism and the problem of racism. That can be dangerous.
AB: The passage of the law a year ago is in some way a high point of the debate that had been underway in the province of Quebec for years, if not decades. Beryl framed it around the role of religion within the public square and how cultural and religious differences should be accommodated within Quebec culture and Quebec society. Is this law the final word? Is there now a sense that we can move forward?
MHC: I'm not sure if it’s the final word since the (Charter of Rights’ notwithstanding) clause will have to be renewed. But I think it provided closure. The Legault government was clear on that. They wanted to close the debate and it was a convenient time to legislate.
AB: Beryl, do you think that there's closure here?
BW: I think it's a beginning, but I don't think this is just about Quebec. When I speak (outside Quebec), I see people looking at Canada as a whole, and at our whole approach to multiculturalism. Instead of being a compassionate way of applying laws using persuasion rather than coercion and compulsion, it has become a political trough of incredible financial proportions. Across the country, we're having this debate now. There's a whole conversation going on, especially now when things are so difficult, about whether government should get back to (providing) public service, not (engaging in) social engineering. Freedom of religion, of course, but (also) freedom from religion, freedom of multiculturalism, of course, but not funding it constantly.
This is not a new issue. Thomas Darcy McGee, the only politician in Canada to be assassinated, died for it in 1863. He said there is room in this Northern dominion, under one flag and one set of laws, for one great people. There was no possibility for that greatness under that same flag and those same laws if we succumb to 112 particularities. We are now succumbing to a thousand squabbling particularities. And if freedom of religion in the public square means being funded by the public square, then let's get rid of the monotheistic face. Let's look at everybody else. The Hindus have five major gods and over 500 minor gods. Why should their rights be any less than our rights? We've got a big problem with this, and this has to be resolved in the next years because guess what? Money's running out.
AB: Maxime, Beryl makes a claim about the understanding of the common good that this law affirms and, ultimately, what an approach to multiculturalism and pluralism would affirm. What does this law say about pluralism within Quebec? What does it say about the freedom to publicly express one’s faith? Is it contravening a robust understanding of religious freedom?
MHC: I agree with pretty much what Beryl said but one needs to remember Quebec’s cultural and historical specificity. We have two divides here: between the State and religion but also between provincial Quebec politics and federal politics. I don't think the law is really common-good oriented, but many nationalists have identified Bill 21 with common good politics. Why? Because it affirmed social community or cultural community over what is seen as individualistic, multicultural Canadian politics.
But the real question is how does forbidding religious symbols for most civil servants promote the common good? If the answer is, well, it, it promotes State laicity, okay. But how does State laicity promote the common good? How does it make the life of all citizens better? I think we're facing not so much common good politics as nation building politics. I'm not saying nation building politics is always wrong. I'm saying the moral justification was weak in this case.
AB: Beryl, what do you think of Maxime's point about it being a moral issue, particularly if we apply philosopher Charles Taylor’s distinction between open and closed secularism?
BW: Taylor always stops one step short because everybody's afraid to touch the third rail. And here's the third rail. The third rail is that religion has been a constant source of friction in the public square. In Quebec, it was part of the nation building process until anti-religious sentiment became part of the liberation of Quebec in the 1960s. Canada was formed on this in the Confederation debates. The two great political leaders of Quebec, George Etienne Cartier and Aimé Dorion, were on either side. Dorion insisted the Canadian Confederation must protect religion and language. He wanted political parties based on it. Cartier said, famously, “No, I have a new vision for a national political character, not tied to religion, not tied to language, keep that at home.” And this debate has come up now because so much of religion has become not a matter of the right to practice your faith, which no one disputes, but a right to demand support from the State or to demand support from institutions in the multicultural framework.
AB: So, Maxime, Beryl is making this connection between indirect funding for religious organizations through their tax-exempt status. What about this? Because the core of this debate seems to be how to live life fully as a religious person in the public square. Are we seeing in Quebec, and generally within Canada, a contraction of the public square for people of faith to not simply go and worship where they wish to worship, but also how they seek to live out that religious self in all aspects of their life?
MHC: We do see a bit of this contraction, but I don't think this is the main point. I don't think you can make a strict parallel between the 1960s and what is happening now. What State laicity is about is authority. Who has the legitimate authority to enact laws? In the ’60s, the problem was two kinds of authority: a religious authority and a political authority. What laicity is about is saying, “Okay, now we have to govern ourselves according to laws and there are ways to do it without a religious revelation. We're going to separate things so authority is placed in the government, and the Catholic church will just have authority over people’s souls.” But in the case of Bill 21, we're seeing the government wanting to separate the expression of religious values of lay people from government activities: Muslim women, Jewish men, a Sikh man working for the government. They do not hold religious authority. So the State now is exceeding its vocation. It's not neutrality anymore because it's not about authority anymore, but about cultural expression.
BW: But we need to deal with facts here, not with fiction and not with the Jews and the Muslims. There is no law that says a (Jewish) man has to have his head covered. You cover your head if you're praying, making a blessing or studying a Holy book. Nothing in Islam says that women must have their face covered, or their head covered, or anything covered. It's a custom and every Muslim cleric has said the same thing.
Now some clerics want to enforce that custom as law. They quote the notion, which even exists in English common law and French civil law, that a custom can become a law by usage. But it's not religious. There’s nothing in Christianity that says that you have to wear a crucifix outside your clothes. Nothing. You don't need any symbols to understand the Sermon on the Mount. You either carry it inside you or you don't. I would have gone further in Bill 21. I would have said if you want to stand for public office, take off all your gear because you're representing everybody.